Last Man in Tower
He went back to bed. In the old days, his wife’s tea and talk and perfume would wake him up. He closed his eyes.
Screams from down below. The two sons of Ajwani, the broker, began the morning by practising tae kwon do in full uniform in their living room. Ajwani’s boys were the athletic champions of the Society. The eldest, Ravi, had won a tremendous victory in the martial arts competition last year. As a gesture of the Society’s gratitude, he was asked to dip his hand in kerosene and leave a memento of his victorious body on the front wall, where it could still be seen (or so everyone was sure), just above Mrs Saldanha’s kitchen window.
Now from Masterji’s left, a callisthenic voice, flipping diphthongs up and down. ‘Oy, oy, oyoyoyoy, my Ramu – come here . . . Ay, ay. Turn that way my prince, oyoyoy . . .’ What was Ramu going to take to school for lunch? Masterji wondered, yawning and turning to the side.
A noise from the kitchen. The very noise Purnima used to make when chopping onions. He tiptoed into the kitchen to catch a ghost, if one was there. An old calendar was tapping on the wall. It was Purnima’s private calendar, illustrated with an image of the goddess Lakshmi tipping over a pot full of gold coins, with key dates circled and marked in her private shorthand. She had consulted it to the day she had been admitted to hospital (12 October; circled), so he had not removed it at the start of the year.
He would have to walk a bit today with his grandson; in anticipation, he wrapped a pink orthopaedic cloth tightly around his arthritic left knee before putting on his trousers. Back at the teak-wood table he picked up The Soul’s Passageway After Death.
The bell rang. Bushy-haired, bearded, bespectacled Ibrahim Kudwa, the cybercafe owner from Flat 4/C, with dandruff sprinkled like spots of wisdom on the shoulders of his green kurta.
‘Did you see the sign, Masterji?’ Kudwa pointed to the window. ‘In the hole they made outside. I changed the sign from “Inconvenience is in Progress, Work is Regretted” to the other way.’ Kudwa slapped his forehead. ‘Sorry, I changed it from “Work is in Progress, Inconvenience is Regretted” to the other way round. I thought you would like to know.’
‘Very impressive,’ Masterji said, and patted his beaming neighbour. In the kitchen, the old calendar began tapping on the wall again, and Masterji forgot to offer his visitor even a cup of tea.
By midday, he was at the Byculla Zoo, leading his grandson by the hand, from cage to cage. The two of them had seen a lioness, two black bears rolling about in fresh grass, an alligator in emerald water, elephants, hippos, cobras and pythons.
The boy had questions: What is the name of that animal in the water – Who is the tiger yawning at – Why are the birds yellow? Masterji enjoyed giving names to the animals, and added a humorous story to explain why each one left his native land and came to Mumbai. ‘Do you think of your grandmother?’ he asked the boy from time to time.
The two of them stopped in front of a rectangular cage with bars and a low tin roof; an animal moved from one end to the other. The idlers who had turned up to the zoo, even the lovers, stopped at the cage. A green tarpaulin on the roofing made a phosphorescent glow through which the dark animal came, jauntily, as if chuckling, its tongue hanging out, until it stood up on a red guano-stained stone bench and reared its head; it got down, turned, went to the other end of the cage and reared its head again before turning back. It was filthy – it was majestic: the grey fleece, the dark doglike grinning face, the powerful striped lower limbs. Men and women watched it. Perhaps this mongrel beast looked like one of those – half-politician and half-criminal – who ruled the city, vile and necessary.
‘What is its name?’
Masterji could not say. The syllables were there, on the tip of his tongue. But when he tried to speak they moved the other way, as if magnetically repulsed. He shrugged.
At once the boy seemed frightened, as if his grandfather’s power, which lay in naming these animals, had ended.
To cheer him up, Masterji bought him some peanuts (though his daughter-in-law had told him not to feed the boy), and they ate on the grass. Masterji thought he was in a happy time of his life. The battles were over; the heat and light were dimmed.
Before it is too late, he thought, running his fingers through his grandson’s curly hair, I must tell this boy all that we have been through. His grandmother and I. Life in Bombay in the old days. War in 1965 with Pakistan. War in 1971. The day they killed Indira Gandhi. So much more.
‘More peanuts?’ he asked.
The boy shook his head, and looked at his grandfather hopefully.
Sonal, his daughter-in-law, was waiting at the gate. She smiled as he talked on their drive into the city. His son lived in Marine Lines, an apartment furnished by the insurance company he worked for. When they reached there, Sonal served Masterji tea and bad news: his son had just sent a text message. He would not be coming home until midnight. Busy day at the office. ‘Why don’t you wait?’ she suggested. ‘You can stay overnight. It’s your own home, after all . . .’
‘I’ll wait,’ he said.
‘Do you think of her a lot, Masterji?’ she asked.
‘All the time.’ The words just burst out of him. He tapped the arms of his chair. ‘Gaurav will remember when his grandfather died, in 1991, and she went to Suratkal to perform the last rites with her brothers, who lived there. When she came back to Mumbai, she said nothing for days. Then she confessed. “They locked me up in a room and made me sign a paper.” Her own brothers! They threatened her until she signed over her share of their father’s property and gold to them.’
Even now the memory stopped his breath. He had gone to see a lawyer at once. Four hundred rupees as a retainer, paid in cash up front. Masterji had come home and talked it over with Purnima.
‘“We’ll never put them behind bars,” I told her. “Is it worth spending the money?” She thought about it and said, “All right, let it drop.” Sometimes I would look back on the incident and ask myself, should I have paid for that lawyer? But whenever I brought it up with her, she just did this –’ he shrugged ‘– and said that thing. Her favourite saying. “Man is like a goat tied to a pole.” Meaning, all of us have some free will but not too much. One shouldn’t judge oneself harshly.’
‘That is so beautiful. She was a wonderful woman.’ Sonal got up. ‘I have to check on my father.’
Her father, once a respected banker, now suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s. He lived with his daughter and son-in-law and was fed, bathed and clothed by them. As Sonal slipped into an inner room, Masterji silently commended her filial devotion. So rare in an age like this. He tapped his knee and tried to remember the name of that striped animal in the cage.
Sonal came out of her father’s room with a blue book, which she placed on the table.
‘The boy doesn’t read much; he plays cricket. It is better that you keep it, since you are fond of books.’
Masterji opened the blue book. The Illustrated History of Science. Purchased a decade ago at the Strand Book Shop in the city, maintained impeccably, until last week when he had given it to his grandson as a gift.
He got up from his chair. ‘I’ll go back now.’
‘At this hour? The train will be packed.’
‘What am I, a foreigner? I’ll survive.’
‘Are you sure you won’t wait? Gaurav will be here . . .’
With his book in his hand, Masterji walked past the old buildings of Marine Lines, some of the oldest in the city – past porticos never penetrated by the sun and lit up at all times of day by yellow electric bulbs, stone eaves broken by saplings and placental mounds of sewage and dark earth piled up on wet roads. Along the Marine Lines train station he walked towards Churchgate.
He looked at the blue book in his hand. Was that flat so small they couldn’t keep even one book of his in it? The boy’s own grandfather – and they had to shove my gift back in my hands?
He opened the blue book and saw an illustration of Galileo.
‘Hyena,’ he said, and closed the book. That was the word he had not been able to find for Ronak.
‘Hyena. My own daughter-in-law is a hyena to me.’
Don’t think badly of her. He heard Purnima’s voice. It is your ugliest habit, she had always warned him. The way you get angry with people, crush them into cartoons, mock voices, manners, ideas; shrink flesh-and-blood humans into fireflies to hold in your palm. She would cut his rage short by touching his brow (once holding a glass of ice-cold water to it) or by sending him out on an errand. Now who was there to control his anger?
He touched the Illustrated History of Science to his forehead and thought of her.
It was dark by the time he reached the Oval Maidan. The illuminated clock on the Rajabai tower, cloudy behind generations of grime and neglect, looked like a second moon, more articulate, speaking directly to men. He thought of his wife in this open space; he felt her calm here. Perhaps that calm was all he had ever had; behind it he had posed as a rational creature, a wise man for his pupils at St Catherine’s and for his neighbours.
He did not want to go home. He did not want to lie down on that bed again.
He looked at the clock. After his wife’s death, Mr Pinto came to him and said, ‘You will eat with us from now on.’ Three times a day he went down the stairs to sit at the Pintos’ dining table, covered with a red-and-white chequerboard oilcloth they had brought back from Chicago. They did not have to announce that food was served. He heard the rattling of cutlery, the shaking of the chairs and, with the clairvoyance provided by hunger, he could look through his floorboards and see Mrs Pinto’s maid Nina placing porcelain vessels filled with steaming prawn curry on the table. Raised as a strict vegetarian, Masterji had learned the taste of animals and fish in Bombay; exchanging his wife’s lentil-and-vegetable regimen for the Pintos’ carnivorous diet was the only good thing, he said to himself, that had come of her death. The Pintos asked for nothing in return, but he came back every evening from the market with a fistful of coriander or ginger, which he deposited on their table. They would be delaying their dinner for him; he should find a payphone at once.
A loose page of the Times of India lay on the pavement. A student of his named Noronha wrote a column for the paper; for this reason he never stamped on it. He took a sudden sideways step to avoid the paper. The pavement began to slide away like sand. His left knee throbbed; things darkened. Spots twinkled in the darkness, like silica in a slab of granite. ‘You’re going to faint,’ someone seemed to shout from afar, and he reached out to that voice for support; his hand alighted on something solid – a lamp post. He closed his eyes and concentrated on standing still.
Leaning against the lamp post. Breathing in and out. Now he heard the sound of wood being chopped from somewhere in the Oval Maidan. The blows of the axe came with metronomic regularity, like the hour hand on a grandfather clock: underneath them, he heard the crisp ticking of his own wristwatch, like little live splinters of seconds flying from the log. The two sounds quickened, as if in competition.
It was almost nine o’clock when he felt strong enough to continue home.
Churchgate train station: the shadows of the tall ceiling fans tremulous, like water lilies, as shoes tramped on them. It had been years since Masterji had taken the Western Line in rush hour. The train to Santa Cruz was just pulling in. He turned his face away as the women’s compartments went past. Before the train stopped, passengers had begun jumping in, landing with thuds, nearly falling over, recovering, scrambling for seats. Not an inch of free green cushion by the time Masterji got in. Wait. In a corner, he did spot a vacant patch of green but he was kept away by a man’s hand – ah, yes, he remembered now: the infamous evening-train ‘card mafia’. They were reserving a seat for a friend who always sat there to play with them. Masterji held on to a pole for support. With one hand he opened the blue book and turned the pages to find the section on Galileo. The card mafia, their team complete, were now playing their game, which would last them the hour and a quarter to Borivali or Virar; their cards had, on the reverse side, the hands of a clock at various angles, giving the impression of time passing with great furiousness as they were dealt out. Marine Lines–Charni Road–Grant Road–Mumbai Central–Elphinstone Road. Middle-aged accountants, stockbrokers, insurance salesmen kept coming in at each stop. Like an abdominal muscle, the human mass in the train contracted. Masterji was squeezed: the Illustrated History of Science progressively folded shut.
Now for the worst. The lights turned on in the train as it came to a halt. Dadar station. Footfalls and pushing: in the dim first-class compartment men multiplied like isotopes. A pot belly pressed against Masterji – how hard a pot belly can feel! The smell of another’s shirt became the smell of his shirt. He remembered a line from his college Hamlet. ‘The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ Shakespeare underestimated the trauma of life in Mumbai by a big margin.
The pressure on him lessened. Through the barred windows of the moving train he saw firecrackers exploding in the sky. Bodies relaxed; faces glowed with the light from outside. Rockets shot out of begrimed buildings. Was it a religious festival? Hindu, or Muslim, or Parsi, or Jain, or Roman Catholic? Or something more mysterious: an unplanned confluence of private euphoria – weddings, engagements, birthdays, other incendiary celebrations in tandem.
At Bandra, he realized he had only one stop left, and began pushing his way to the door. I’m getting out too, old man. You should be patient. When the train stopped, he was three feet away from the door; he was pushed from behind and pushed those ahead of him. But now a counter-tide hit them all: men barged in from the platform. Those who wanted to get out at Santa Cruz wriggled, pressed, cursed, refused to give up, but the superior desperation of those wanting to get in won the day. The train moved; Masterji had missed his stop. ‘Uncle, I’ll make room for you.’ One young man, who had seen his plight, moved back. ‘Get out at Vile–Parle and take the next train up.’ This time, when the train slowed, the mass of departing commuters shouted, in one voice, ‘Move!’ And nothing stopped them; they swept Masterji along with them on to the platform. Catching the Churchgate-bound train, he went back to Santa Cruz, where the station was so packed he had to climb the stairs that led out one step at a time.
He was released by the crowd into harsh light and strong fragrance. On the bridge that led out from the station, under bare electric bulbs, men sold orange and green perfumes in large bottles next to spreads of lemons, tennis shoes, key chains, wallets, chikoos. Cyclo-styled advertisements on yellow paper were handed to Masterji as he left the bridge.
He dropped the advertisements and walked down the stairs, avoiding the one-armed beggar, into a welcome-carpet of fructose. In the market by the station, mango sellers waited for the returning commuters: ripe and bursting, each mango was like a heartfelt apology from the city for the state of its trains. Masterji smelled the mangoes and accepted the apology.